Early Christian History
The earliest reference to Christianity in Cyprus is found in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 13). This tells of a visit to the island by Paul, Barnabas (who was a Cypriot by birth) and John Mark, at the start of what is called St. Paul’s First Missionary Journey. The visit is probably to be dated in the second half of the 40’s of the 1st century AD and the three probably came in the hope of converting Jews. They landed on the east coast at Salamis, the largest city (it had 3 synagogues) and then came to the Roman capital Nea (New) Paphos, now Kato (Lower) Paphos.
There is no indication that many Jews were won over but one Jew had a dramatic encounter with St. Paul. This was the prophet or magus known variously as Elymas and Bar Jesus. He resisted the Christian missionaries at the court of the proconsul in Paphos and was consequently denounced by St.Paul, who correctly predicted that he would, as a punishment, temporarily lose his sight. This event so impressed the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, that he converted to the Christian faith (becoming the first Roman ruler to do so). However, since it was part of the proconsul’s job to oversee pagan religious rites Sergius Paulus may well have had to resign his post as a result! The site of the proconsul’s residence is uncertain but it may well have been in the area where the mosaics are located. (The ‘House of Theseus’ may have been the proconsul’s residence in the 3rd century AD and may have been built on the site of an earlier building).
In 2 Corinthians 11: 24-25 St. Paul says that during his ministry so far he has been beaten five times by the Jews, three times by the Romans. Cypriot tradition has it that the apostle was tied to one of the many pillars that now lie adjacent to the church of Agia Kyriaki and beaten. If this is correct it will probably have been done by the Jews but, as neither Acts nor Paul’s letters speak of any mistreatment in Cyprus, the tradition of the beating, and the association of the apostle with the area where Agia Kyriaki lies, must remain open to question.
At the beginning of the 4th century AD a magnificent Christian basilica, the largest on the island, was built near the site of the present church. The floors were decorated with mosaics in floral and geometric patterns and the columns were made out of granite and marble with Corinthian-styled capitals. The basilica was divided into seven aisles with the central nave ending in the east in a double apse. The narthex, or porch, at the west end opened onto a colonnaded court. To the south of this site the outlines of a building were found that might have been the residence of the Bishop.
The Basilica was extensively remodelled and reduced to five aisles. The double apse was replaced with a single one and the large floor areas were also repaved with new mosaics. The reason for this refurbishment is obscure yet it certainly reflects the continuing prosperity of Paphos. The Basilica appears to have been destroyed at the time of the Arab invasion in 653 AD. Paphos suffered great damages at that time, as the Arab graffiti on the fallen columns support.
The Small Byzantine Church
Sometime later a small Byzantine Church was erected above the ruins of the Basilica. Its foundations were found directly below the present church.
The Lusignan Dynasty
In 1191 Richard the Lionheart, King of England, landed in Cyprus en route for the Third Crusade. After some adventurous battles he conquered the island from a Byzantine prince, Isaac Comnenos, who had become ruler of Cyprus. Financially Richard was unable to hold the island and he sold it to the Knights Templar. One year later, in 1192, the island changed hands again; this time it was acquired by the French knight, Guy de Lusignan, sovereign of the “Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem”. The Lusignan period lasted until 1498.
The official schism between Eastern and Western Christendom had existed since 1054 but it reached a climax in 1260 when Pope Alexander IV issued the Bulla Cypria and the Latin Archbishop became Metropolitan of both churches – the Roman Catholic and the Byzantine. Thus Paphos was a centre of the Frankish administration and of the Catholic Church for a period of 300 years. During 1219 St. Francis of Assisi is believed to have visited the island and from this time onwards “the Cordeliers” maintained a presence in Cyprus.
By the late 13th or early 14th century the Franciscan foundation built a Gothic church. The remains of this beautiful building, unique in Cyprus, lie at a somewhat higher level on the edge of the ruins of the Basilica, adjacent to the present wooden walkway. There were other churches in the Paphos area, amongst them a Gothic cathedral.
The Venetian influence
By 1498 the island came under the control of the Venetians. It was during this time that the present building was constructed in the style of a Byzantine church. The building is erected over an earlier church that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1159.
The Ottoman period
With the invasion of the Ottomans in 1570 the Catholic dominance came to an end. Many Latin churches were either destroyed or changed into mosques – the St. Sophia church near the Municipal Market was converted to a mosque in this fashion. Through special arrangements the church by St Paul’s pillar was spared destruction and was named Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, the Byzantine Cathedral of Kato Paphos.